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Al Qaeda opens new branch on Indian subcontinent

David Evison | Getty Images | Getty Images

Al Qaeda has released a video announcing the establishment of a new branch on the Indian subcontinent, saying it is meant to revive jihadist activity in a region that was once "part of the land of Muslims, until the infidel enemy occupied it and fragmented it and split it."

In the 55-minute video posted on jihadist forums, Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, addresses listeners in parts of the region with large Muslim populations, assuring Muslims in Burma and Bangladesh; in the Indian states of Assam and Gujarat; and in the Kashmir region that "your brothers" in the militant organization "did not forget you and that they are doing what they can to rescue you."

In recent months, Al Qaeda's emerging competitor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has begun to recruit Indian Muslims, and some analysts viewed the video announcement as a response. The new entity, Qaedatal-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent, represents the network's fifth official branch and its first in Asia, adding to branches based in North Africa, in East Africa, in Yemen and in Syria.

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Mr. Zawahri said it had taken more than two years "to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity," but did not mention smaller groups that might be affiliated. The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online, said the video was posted Wednesday.

Indian news outlets reported Thursday that the country's Intelligence Bureau had verified the video's authenticity and had alerted police officials across the nation to a heightened threat.

Sambit Patra, a spokesman for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, called the announcement "a matter of serious concern."

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"The government will take a note of it, and surely see to it that whatever action we have to take against this will be done," he said, according to ANI, a wire service.

Al Qaeda, which has been weakened by military and economic pressure in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not traditionally recruited heavily in India or staged major attacks there. Instead, its ideological focus has been on driving out a "far enemy" — the United States and its allies — from the Middle East. Analysts say its leaders may be wary of a conflict with the Indian region's huge Hindu population.

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However, ISIS, a Sunni network that split from Al Qaeda last year, has been recruiting Indian Muslims this summer.

In his address, Mr. Zawahri does not refer to ISIS, but he does call for unity among jihadists, saying, "Discord is a curse and torment, and disgrace for the believers and glory for the disbelievers."

Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York security consulting firm, called the message "a serious counter-narrative to the ISIS expansion."

"Al-Zawahri is establishing an antithesis to ISIS and its ideology, a message to mujahedeen to unify together, not kill Muslims and kill each other, and keep the focus of the attacks on Western powers," Mr. Alkhouri said in a written reply to questions. "In other words, maintain the original Al Qaeda goals."

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Some analysts played down the announcement's significance because Al Qaeda has a limited presence in India, where militant networks rely on local fighters and are driven by local conflicts.

Wilson John, a terrorism expert at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said one measure of Al Qaeda's weakness was that no Kashmiri militants had ever associated themselves with it. He added that organizers of the 2008 militant attacks on Mumbai were forced to bring in Pakistanis, presumably because they were unable to recruit inside India.

"There is an ideological disconnect," he said, because most Indian Muslims have little sympathy for the Wahhabi religious movement followed by some extremists. "They never had this support despite two decades of trying to find an anchor in India."

In the video statement, the Qaeda leader vows to "crush the artificial borders established by the English occupiers to divide the Muslims."The subcontinent was split along religious lines by a partition engineered by the British Empire in 1947. Millions of Muslims left for Pakistan, but many stayed in India, and Muslims make up about 14 percent of the population.

Mr. Zawahri refers twice to Gujarat, a state that was led for 12 years by India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi. Gujarat was the site of bloody religious riots in 2002, when Mr. Modi was chief minister, leading to the deaths of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.

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